BLACKSBURG — The walk to Jane Lillian Vance’s front stoop passes a row of Tibetan wheels. They each have scrolls rolled up inside them. Tradition says that spinning them has the same effects as reading the sacred text on those scrolls aloud.
A small posse of cats greets callers, and on a recent visit, a dog joined the welcoming party. This particular dog, a silky terrier named Kirby, once belonged to Morgan Harrington, a young Roanoke woman in Vance’s 2009 creative process class who was murdered later that year in Charlottesville. Vance was dogsitting Kirby for Morgan’s parents.
Stepping inside the house revealed many more faces — animals, diplomats, law enforcement officials, mythological creatures, Tibetan gods — their eyes regarding the occupants of the front room from the surfaces of dozens of canvases that emanate “a flow of energy and consciousness,” as an art critic once wrote of Vance’s work.
Like Kirby, these paintings were waiting to journey to Roanoke: Kirby to rejoin Dan and Gil Harrington, and the artwork in preparation for a show.
Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine will open a retrospective exhibition showcasing more than 100 paintings of Vance’s on Sept. 24. The show’s title, “The First Sixty Years,” doesn’t refer to the length of her Vance’s career but to her time on this Earth.
The North Carolina native, 61, said that 60 years has a poignant significance for her. “My beautiful, wonderful, otherwise smart mom, who smoked three packs a day, died when she was 60,” she said. “I have just surpassed her time, and that means a lot to me. I was pregnant with my first child when she died. Her passing was a monumental grief for me.”
On Vance’s 60th birthday, she and daughter Iris, now 31, were climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. “Being 61 is a big deal,” Vance said. “It’s the beginning of the next 60 years.”
Mountains and mapmaking
With every new painting, Vance pays homage to her mother. She signs her full name so the three words make a downward-pointed triangle, with “Lillian,” he mother’s name, always on the topmost side.
Her paintings pay homage to many other people, places, topics and themes. You could say Vance puts her entire life on canvas. “I work all the time,” she said. “I’m almost a vampire. I almost don’t sleep. I can say, I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be more settled in the world.”
She’s made art since she was a child growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina. “This is what they call a gift,” she said. “I see this as a duty and an obligation and I have since I was a tiny child.”
At four years old, “I was making maps of the mountains of western North Carolina, because that’s where my father taught me to find sweet huckleberries and safe mushrooms, and to find the rare wildflowers. There was always reference to what you can do there, what treasures are there.”
Vance has no intention of organizing the works in her show in chronological order, and her easily recognizable style, consistent over many years, makes it unlikely a casual viewer will be able to tell what’s early and what’s recent without knowledge of the incidents the paintings reference, though one can’t miss the teeming nods to Tibetan culture.
Appalachians to Himalayas
Her affinity for mountains brought her to Virginia Tech after earning degrees in art and English from the College of William and Mary. She grew interested in visiting India after befriending a fellow grad student who hailed from there. She first went there in 1985 and found the experience a mind-opening revelation.
Twenty years later, in notes for an art exhibition, she recalled “walking down a single street in India and thinking, wow, this man is working as if in the Bronze Age; ah, this is pre-history; here’s a cyber-café; here’s the eighteenth century; here’s colonial England. There were all these simultaneous moments in history, not to mention races and religions, tolerating each other well, without judgment, without condescension, and with some understanding of each others’ talents and traditions. Those layers, co-existing in one place, have always seemed to me like healthy bio-diversity, and are represented in my paintings in the melange and sheer profusion of imagery.”
In 1985 she also took the first of many flights into the mountains of Nepal, where she would eventually befriend Tsampa Ngawang, a Buddhist lama. In 2001, Ngawang came to Blacksburg and spent a semester teaching about Himalayan culture at Virginia Tech.
Vance has been at the heart of two award-winning regionally produced documentaries which have aired on PBSBlue Ridge PBS (WBRA-TV, Channel 15). “Into Nepal: A Journey Through the Kathmandu Valley” premiered in 2003. The film resulted from a trip in which Vance served as a guide for her friend Jenna Swan, who had won a $25,000 McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence, part of which was designated for international travel.
“A Gift for the Village,” which premiered in 2010, reunited Vance with Swan and Roanoke filmmaker Tom Landon. This second film presented scenes from a journey Vance and the crew made to Tsampa Ngawang’s village in the Himalayas. Vance had created a 7-foot lineage painting of Ngawang, becoming the first woman and the first Westerner to participate in that ancient tradition, a project she undertook with the blessings of none other than the Dalai Lama. The documentary showed footage from the festival where Vance presented Ngawang with his painting in person.
A fortuitous visit
Before those ventures, Vance visited South Asia regularly, and generated gigantic paintings filled with the things she saw and learned. She didn’t show, however, until a cousin of hers conspired to have art critic Suzi Gablik visit her rural home.
A New York native who once worked as the London correspondent for Art in America magazine, Gablik moved to Blacksburg to teach at Virginia Tech. She had an intimidating demeanor, perpetually wore dark glasses and usually had an entourage of men accompanying her, Vance recalled. “Think about, say, Lady Gaga with a dozen managers.”
At first Vance was concerned the meeting wouldn’t go well, as she and Gablik seemed so different, but those worries dissipated when the critic walked into her house. “She said, ‘Who knows about this?’ I said, ‘My children and my cats.’ She said, ‘Well, that’s going to change.’”
Gablik wrote an article about Vance’s art and brought visitors to her house such as Jackie Matisse, granddaughter of French master Henri Matisse. She included Vance in a 1995 exhibition, “Sacred Wild,” held in the apexart gallery in Manhattan. In the flier for the show, Gablik praised the fecundity found in Vance’s work. “With her multiple metaphors and colliding images, all the realms mix and merge in a radiant form of free expression,” the critic wrote.
In terms of artistic philosophy and opinions on modern abstract art, Gablik and Vance were kindred spirits. “Suzi was pivotal for me.” She read Gablik’s book “Has Modernism Failed?” and found it liberating. Gablik wrote that art should foster interaction and connection, a notion Vance embraces.
“These paintings have a craftsmanship, so that when a plumber or a carpenter or an electrician comes here, they stop and look long at these paintings and nod with familiarity,” Vance said. “I don’t love when people have been scared away from the edifying power of art because they’ve been tricked by modernism and abstraction.”
Art she does admire includes the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe and recent Taubman Museum of Art exhibitions by Bob Trotman and Colette Fu. In terms of her productivity, “I’m always chasing Frida Kahlo.”
She referred to one of most controversial examples of 1970s performance art, in which Chris Burden had himself shot in the arm and filmed the experience. “Take that to a traditional culture, whose traditional skilled detailed paintings teach service and morality and humanitarianism, and it looks like what it is, flagrant decadent foolishness. It’s the self-indulgence of too much money and too little message.”
Vance used to lecture on the creative process as adjunct faculty for the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech. “I railed in that same vein when I taught my students.”
One particular student, who she referred to as “Morgan the front row girl,” would change the focus of her life.
Fire into service
The artist met Morgan Harrington at an event in Roanoke that showcased the lineage painting she made for Ngawang. Entranced by the painting, Harrington later enrolled in Vance’s class at Virginia Tech during the spring 2009 semester.
“Morgan was in this house,” Vance said. During the visit, she recalled Harrington pausing on the short stairway to the kitchen. “She had this smile, and I said, ‘What, Morgan?’ ” Her student replied, “My mom needs to come here.”
Harrington disappeared on Oct. 17, 2009, after leaving a Metallica concert at Charlottesville’s John Paul Jones Arena. Her remains were discovered on Albemarle County farmland three months later. Her murder remained unsolved until after the September 2014 abduction and slaying of 18-year-old University of Virginia student Hannah Graham. Witness accounts and video footage led investigators to Jesse Leroy Matthew Jr.
DNA evidence linked Matthew to Harrington’s murder. In March 2016 he pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and abduction with the intent to defile in both cases and received four life sentences with no possibility of release.
Before Harrington’s body was discovered, Vance tried to contact her. “Every second night, I would write to her,” she said. Upon learning about her disappearance, “I stood up and said, ‘Not Morgan!’ I knew something about her potential and I was outraged.”
Hesitantly, she reached out to Dan and Gil Harrington. At first she was nervous about mentioning their daughter, until Gil said to her, “Every time you don’t say her name, she dies again.”
Vance became vice president of the nonprofit Gil Harrington founded, Help Save the Next Girl, dedicated to the prevention of dating violence, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual violence, to facilitating communication between victim’s families, law enforcement and the media and to raising public awareness in cases like Morgan Harrington’s. “Morgan’s death did that to me. She made me turn fire into service,” Vance said. “There is no day that I don’t work on Help Save the Next Girl.”
Vance and Gil Harrington together wrote the book “Morgan Harrington: Murdered and Dead for Good — A Mother’s Quest to Find a Serial Killer and Healing,” published through Nepal-based through Nepal-based Vajra Books.
Two paintings by Vance related to Morgan Harrington and Help Save the Next Girl will be in the show, one a portrait of Morgan, one that incorporates a view of the field where her body was found. Both incorporate some of Morgan Harrington’s ashes.
Dan Harrington, vice dean of VTC School, and Vance’s daughter Iris, a doctor at Duke University, have both demonstrated to the artist that, as she puts it, “Medicine is service,” making her proud that medical students will be the primary audience for her exhibition.
For all her heady, heavy subject matter, Vance finds room for lightness, and even levity. She’s collaborating on a children’s book, “Lo Khyi the DiploDog,” with Scott DeLisi, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nepal and then Uganda under President Barack Obama. In words and pictures the book tells the story of Lo Khyi, a Tibetan mastiff DeLisi received as a gift during a visit to a Nepalese village.
The paintings have actual soil from Nepal in a variety of colors mixed in with the pigment. Illustrations painted for the book will be part of the show, which DeLisi will attend. Now the executive director of the Virginia-based nonprofit Soarway Foundation, dedicated to providing disaster relief in Nepal, DeLisi has shared Vance’s art on his Facebook page with exclamations like, “So very cool, love it!”
Those illustrations aren’t the only paintings in the show that will have additional meaning for individuals in attendance who Vance knows personally.
“I think this show at the medical school is more a declaration that whatever your gift is, you must be dutiful to it. And if you are, and if you start early, before anyone knows you or sees you or before any accolades or applause, only then, in the accumulation of your work over time, will you make an impact that has some cultural stamina,” she said. “I can’t say in a day or a week or a year what this show will say, because I’ve been working for decades.”